I recently attended a conference in Copenhagen about sustainable consumption where I kept hearing “the Global South” used to refer to poor people in general, to low income countries, and the continents of Africa and South America. I used the term myself to point out that while we were talking a great deal about the billions who consume little, they were poorly represented at the conference and were rarely part of the conversation about consumption and sustainability. But on the way home I started to wonder when and how the Global South label became common, and whether it may be obsolete or even pernicious.
Wikipedia tells me that the terms was first used by Carl Oglesby in 1969 in the Catholic journal Commonweal, but it only became popular in the early 2000s, initially among economists. The interdisciplinary journal Global South was launched in 2007, using the term to emphasize that in globalization, people in many regions experience exclusion and political, economic, and social loss, and that “oppositional subaltern cultures exist in many places including rich countries like the USA.” But in practice it seems like the Global South has become another code word for non-European “Others.”
In my undergraduate years, modernization theory was still dominant and “underdeveloped countries” was a common term. It implied that these places just needed some more development to catch up with the developed countries. Dependency theorists in the 1970s gave the label a more radical meaning, that these were places that had been systematically underdeveloped through the operation of an unbalanced economic and political relationship with the rich countries of the “core.” Some dependency theorists (particularly Osvaldo Sunkel) also described a kind of internal underdevelopment within countries, so the growing wealth of some groups of people depended on the immiseration, impoverishment, displacement, dispossession, and proletarianization of previously self-sufficient rural and indigenous people.
During the Cold War, the nonaligned countries tried to find a space between the two nuclear superpowers, the “Third World.” Here the referent was specifically political, and the members were countries seeking an identity and route to development outside of “blocs” of superpowers and their dependents. But whatever the intention of those who promoted the label, gradually the Third World sank into the same otherness, becoming another code word for the parts of the world that were seen as poor, chaotic, culturally different, and definitely non-white. The slow creep from specific to general implies that we are dealing with euphemisms, stand-ins for something we do not want to say, as with the term “inner city.”
The terms of the 1980s and 1990s were a little more optimistic, including a progression of least developed countries, less developed countries, and developing countries. These terms encompassed everyone outside the developed world except maybe “failed states,” which moved backwards. All were formally defined with measures of social welfare and GDP, but while it was obvious that development within countries was uneven, large-scale analysis of the global situation still compared nations, with the richest at one end and the poorest at the other.
Did the concepts of postcolonialism or globalization supplant these earlier “West versus the rest” classifications late in the twentieth century? After all, as the world became “flat,” the nation was supposedly withering away, or melting into basic “civilizations.” Not really. In practice, the Global South usually refers to poor countries, just like the new Trumpian category of “shithole countries.”
All of these classifications depend on measurements from the deceptively simple GDP (gross domestic product) to the more sophisticated HDI (human development index) or even the GNH (gross national happiness). These numbers make the comparison of countries deceptive because they are per capita averages, the weakest possible measure. Every basic statistics class teaches that an average tells you nothing about distribution: a country where everyone scores five on the happiness scale has the same average as a country where half are unhappy ones and half are happy tens.
These national rankings obscure the fact that in every country on the planet you can now find large numbers of people living a cosmopolitan lifestyle of wealth—driving cars, eating in nice restaurants, sending their kids to private schools, and flying on holidays from their comfortable homes. Even in the richest countries, you can find people who are homeless, or living in precarious housing without enough to eat, access to clean water, basic medical care, or public education, many of whom go uncounted. Averaging them makes no sense. Under the neoliberal world order, those with money, position, and education are no longer confined by national boundaries, nor are the desperate poor who are willing to risk everything to leave.
In many countries, these differences are also repeated within every province or city, where the prosperous rich may live within sight of the desperately poor, even though they live in entirely different worlds. But still, these deceptive national statistics proliferate; demographers will explain that they have no choice, because all the numbers are collected, collated, and calculated by national governments. So do we really have to go ahead and use them anyway?
The pernicious thing about labels like Global South is the way they hide assumptions behind facts. As I have argued elsewhere, “Colonial Time” mixed geography, poverty, culture, and temporality, making it seem natural that geographically distant and culturally diverse colonies were also “backward,” lagging behind, stuck in the past, and therefore poor and undeveloped. Unfortunately, our terms for describing global inequality are also backward and obsolescent. While “Global South” may seem like an improvement, it can still hide assumptions and complexities of cultural difference and poverty behind the simplicity of a geographic direction. Cultural differences are everywhere, wealth and poverty are often next-door neighbors, and all of us belong to the same interconnected world, where national boundaries are dynamic and contentious.
Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.
Cite as: Wilk, Richard. 2018. “Euphemisms for the Global Other.” Anthropology News website, August 15, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.944